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Poverty, Politics, Racism and School Reform

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Newark's inconvenient truth: Our poorest neighborhoods, disproportionately African American, contain some of the lowest-performing public schools in the country and have for a long time. A child in the South or West ward is virtually guaranteed to be in an elementary school where only 30 percent of students can read -- or in a high school built for 1500 students with only 500 enrolled and a graduation rate below 30 percent.

It is often said that a society should be judged by how it treats its citizens in greatest need. By this standard, Newark is failing miserably. The achievement gap that separates economically disadvantaged students and students of color from their more advantaged peers is real and the facts in Newark are especially stark.

Some blame the effects of America's racist past. The terrible legacy of slavery and Jim Crow coupled with unfair housing and law enforcement policies set up communities of color to fail. This feels all the more raw in Newark given the city's overall history and specific frustration with twenty plus years of state control of schools. Some argue it is the crippling effects of poverty. How can a child who is hungry learn math? How can a high schooler whose best friend was shot focus on Algebra? This is ever-present in Newark given the deep, historic challenges of gangs and violence that plague parts of our Newark community. Others insist it is a misguided labor movement pretending to stand for kids while launching relentless, highly-funded, facts-be-damned attacks to protect antiquated work rules and jobs at all costs. Thousands of dollars from within and outside of Newark being spent to fuel dissent during a time of major political transition makes this palpable.

I think all of these points have merit. But a third grader only has one third grade. They don't have time for us to attack and argue.

I am an eternal optimist who believes in the power of good ideas and people's ability to work together across all lines, in pursuit of a common good. And the fact remains: One Newark can work. It has to work because the status quo has failed too many, for far too long.

The good news: If we could place the top-performing teachers in Newark in every single classroom, we could close the achievement gap in five years. There are public charter schools down the street from Newark Public Schools that have literally doubled the reading proficiency of our schools. Our graduation rates have climbed 10 points and the number of schools "on the move" is growing. Local and national partners regard Newark as a city fervently committed to the social and emotional growth of our students, forging new conversations in school reform. Good schools are in high demand -- over 5,800 families (and counting) completed an on-line application through One Newark Enrolls in just a few weeks (a new national standard). If we bring those good schools to the neighborhoods with the greatest need, we could revive schools and communities and stop the shuttering of schools.

We know -- I know -- that despite our best and most sincere efforts, we have not yet succeeded in embedding a systemic demand for change and creating conditions where the majority of families who want options for their children are heard. As we sought to reinvent the system for kids we knew good and well that forces would work against our relentless drive to root out dysfunction and knock down pillars of mediocrity. Our message of excellence hasn't been as compelling as messages anchored in fear and intimidation to preserve an indefensible status quo. Our persistent, relentless, and diligent efforts at engagement continue to be intentionally sabotaged by political agendas, lies, and those who shout over, talk down to families, and otherwise disrespect those who dare to believe we can and must be the village that ensures all our children succeed.

But we will keep at it. Let's be clear: we envision a future Newark whose children -- each and every one of them -- can acquire the reading, writing, and math skills necessary to graduate and excel. Five years from now, history will show we either succumbed to local and national forces to cement inexcusable racial and socio-economic inequities -- or that we banded together to forge a new future.